TRENDING – Conflict in Innovation: Who’s Right?

Do your teams become polarized when presented with solutions that are opposites? Does progress yield to futile conflict because they feel if one solution is right the opposite therefore must be wrong? How can intelligent, committed people in the same organization become so divided? Could both sides be right?

Today is National Opposites Day. Initially declared by US President Dwight E. Eisenhower on August 17, 1959 for one day only, today it is celebrated annually every January 25th. The idea caught on not just because it is fun, but because the concept of dualism exists in the naturally occurring system we call nature and her lessons should be observed. Celebrating Opposite Day is no easy task. You do the opposite of everything you consider your norm. For example, start your day by ending it, or have your dinner for breakfast.

Why is this concept important to leaders of innovation? If wielded to leverage its potential, it is an enabler of success. If it is not managed as you undertake an innovation agenda, it can erode your performance and destroy your company in the process. While conducting research to write  his book Built to Last, James Collins discovered that a distinguishing characteristic of highly visionary companies is their capacity to manage paradox. Specifically, he noted that these companies successfully managed the extremes of a number of dimensions at the same time. For example, pursuing purpose AND profit, continuity AND change.  In Ancient Chinese philosophy, yin and yang is used to describe the dualism principle: how two seemingly opposite or contrary forces can be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent, giving rise to each other as they interrelate to one another. Two halves that together complete wholeness as they chase each other to find balance.

At Stage-Gate International, our 30-year pursuit to understand and validate what it takes to achieve sustainable innovation performance also confirms the necessity to manage dualism. Our primary and secondary research observes that successful innovation leaders, teams, and companies deliberately seek to balance a number of contradictions, including:

  • Structure AND Freedom
  • Autonomy AND Accountability
  • Divergent AND Convergent
  • Observational Research AND Experimentation
  • Sprint AND Marathon
  • Change AND Stability
  • Planning AND Spontaneity.

In fact, they deploy fit-for-purpose innovation management systems (like the Stage-Gate® Framework) to provide the checks and balances needed to create and manage such ambidextrous environments. Do your teams successfully navigate and toggle between these extremes to enable your innovation agenda – success in the marketplace? Or are they mired in conflict trying to decide who should win the argument? Opposites are naturally occurring in all living systems, for example, inhaling and ‘exhaling’. If you had to decide which of these two opposites to keep, which would it be? You would quickly realize what a significant and silly waste of time it is to argue for one or the other when healthy movement between the two is critical. Still, if you find your organization in this situation, here is some immediate guidance for you.

Don’t Ignore it.

If there is conflict between internal groups because they feel they are trying to operate in a system that doesn’t make sense to them, investigate it. The longer their disagreement lingers, the more it will affect their ability to perform like true cross-functional teams and this will negatively impact innovation performance. Additionally, as long as folks are fighting internally, they are not paying attention to what is really important and happening externally, customers and competitors; and this will negatively impact innovation performance. Lastly, think of the enormous waste of time it is to have your staff building arguments that do not contribute to advancing your strategy?


There could be a genuine flaw in the design of your innovation management system or in the way it is integrated with your other company systems. If this is the case, fix it by tapping into an expert that designs these systems on a regular basis, like Stage-Gate International. This is like going to the doctor to get a diagnosis and a prescription to fix it. This is much faster than trying to self-diagnose and having a neutral external subject matter expert to mediate tends to accelerate buy-in.

  1. Your innovation management system could be well designed but misunderstood by its players. It is neither intuitive nor naturally comfortable for many to operate in a gray zone. It’s perceived as risky to them. Most people simply want assurances that what they are doing is ‘correct’ and as such, prefer operating with black or white decision guides. If this is the case, fix it by incorporating some training, job aids, and communications. Give folks what they need to feel confident and to successfully navigate your organization’s innovation system. Again, it can be very effective to arrange for an external subject matter expert.
  2. Lastly, you may have a power struggle on your hands, unintentional or otherwise. When organizations introduce a change in the way they work, they may unintentionally create winners and losers. The winners may see themselves as crusaders and they often overemphasize the change they are introducing (i.e. the pendulum swings too far), incorrectly believing the approach will drive home the importance of quick adoption. This over-emphasis typically significantly disrupts the balance and triggers the losers to align to the role of tradition-bearer for fear that the good will be lost in the change. If this tug of war is left unchecked, it will negatively impact innovation performance. This requires a realignment of senior leaders to put the system back into balance. Again, it can be very effective to arrange for an external subject matter expert to advise, mediate, and propose system designs.

One more thing…

How much is at stake if you don’t resolve this type of conflict? It is easier to calculate than you might think. Consider the total forecast revenues you are projecting to deliver from your portfolio of new product innovations over the next five years.  If that sum is at risk because your teams are in constant conflict, that alone should be a wake-up call. What about the profitability of those revenues? What if you could improve productivity and, thereby, profitability even by 1-5% by resolving this conflict?  What are you waiting for?

Have questions? Want to discuss a similar situation within your own organization? Give us a call, we are here to help. You can reach Michelle at or visit our website

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